Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reported the removal of eight Facebook accounts and 126 Instagram accounts in an Iran-based network that was attempting to gain political and social influence online by posing as locals in Scotland and England in December.
According to the social media giant’s recap of its Co-ordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Enforcements in 2021, Meta discovered Iran-based fake accounts primarily targeting Scots as part of its wider internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behaviour in the region, with links to previous networks of influence operations removed in late 2020.
The company deems such behaviour on its platforms to be “co-ordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation”.
Of this, Meta monitors both domestic, non-governmental campaigns as well as those carried out on behalf of either a foreign or government actor, and removed 52 different influence operations based in 34 countries around the world last year.
The Big Tech behemoth found individuals attempting to influence discussions surrounding Scottish independence did so by using fake accounts to post memes and social media posts criticising the UK Government and pledging support for an independent Scotland.
Instagram posts included in Meta’s full report into takedowns of influence campaigns on its sites showed individuals having posted images of Yes Scotland campaign signs and memes of Boris Johnson with the caption “Liar for ever”, while attempting to pose as locals to contact policymakers and others on the photo-sharing platform.
Ben Nimmo, global influence operation threat intel lead at Meta, said this latest Iran-based campaign stood out from similar Iran-based co-ordinated campaigns identified and removed from Facebook in the past.
"It’s not the first time for an Iranian op to pose as supporters of Scottish independence,” wrote Mr Nimmo.
"In the past, FB found a page that copied and posted political cartoons about independence as far back as 2013.
“This time again, this activity didn’t get much traction. The most successful IG account had just over 4K followers, and only about half of those were in the UK.
“What’s remarkable is how hand-crafted the operation was.”
Alongside political content, accounts posted about hobbies, football, life in UK cities and even interior design in an attempt to create an air of authenticity on Instagram.
Many of the fake accounts identified as part of Iran-based influence operations also used profile pictures likely created with artificial intelligence techniques like generative adversarial networks (GAN) or photos of British and Iraqi celebrities.
Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St Andrew’s University and founding director of the University’s Institute of Iranian Studies, said motivations behind such influence operations may be to “weaken and disrupt the UK”.
"For many Iranians in political circles, the UK has long been regarded as a malevolent force in Iranian history and this is a means by which they feel they can get their own back,” he said.
"In this sense they have a historical view of ‘Britain’ that would be no doubt be shared by many nationalists.”